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Rays sign Wilson Ramos, gamble on his health

The catcher is a superb hitter and solid defender — if he makes it onto the diamond.

MLB: Washington Nationals at Pittsburgh Pirates
If Ramos recovers from his knee injury, expect to continue seeing some smooth swings.
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, the Red Sox established themselves as the team to beat in the AL East, trading for Chris Sale to give themselves a scary-good rotation and bringing in Tyler Thornburg to shore up their bullpen. The Rays, evidently, weren’t content to roll over and concede the division: Yesterday, they announced the signing of free-agent catcher Wilson Ramos to a two-year, $12.5 million deal.

Before 2016, the Rays had a somewhat uncertain, yet overall sunny, outlook behind the plate. As my colleague Henry Druschel outlined in February, the club’s catcher platoon looked like it would save a ton of runs via framing:

FanGraphs projects Curt Casali, Rene Rivera, and Hank Conger to be slightly below average on defense, but that's only considering blocking and throwing. Baseball Prospectus projects Conger to be excellent and Rivera to be good at framing, boosting their respective value considerably, and cutting some value out from the pitching staff in return.

That didn’t end up happening, though. Rivera spent the season in Queens, and Conger and Casali — along with farmhand Luke Maile and minor-league free agent Bobby Wilson — struggled immensely. Those four Rays catchers batted a combined .203/.267/.344; their 65 wRC+ was the third-worst in the majors. By Baseball Prospectus’s WARP, which takes framing into account, they were worth a combined 0.31 wins above replacement.

Enter Ramos. While he’s no Buster Posey, Ramos can certainly fool an ump or two: Over his six full seasons with the Nationals, he accumulated 33.3 framing runs, according to BP’s data. And he combines that with solid output at the plate, where he’s hit for a lifetime wRC+ of 100 — well above-average for a catcher. Dependable defense + acceptable offense = a pretty good backstop.

Plus, as you might have heard, Ramos took a big step forward in 2016. Last offseason, he underwent Lasik eye surgery to repair his vision; as my colleague Spencer Bingol outlined in June, that helped his plate discipline improve immensely. Compared to prior years, Ramos chased far less often, remained just as aggressive in the zone, and made much more contact when he did swing:

Year(s) O-Swing% Z-Swing% Contact%
Year(s) O-Swing% Z-Swing% Contact%
2010-15 35.4% 71.9% 79.1%
2016 31.3% 70.5% 82.1%
PITCHf/x plate discipline data via FanGraphs

Thanks to this progress, Ramos hit .307/.354/.496, good for the best wRC+ (124) among qualified catchers. By BP’s judgment, he contributed 5.3 WARP to the Nationals this season; producing that total over the next two years combined would still make the contract a steal for the Rays. If he’s healthy, Ramos is a top-flight two-way backstop, one of the best in the business.

But about that “if”...

Back in September, with the Nats playing the Dbacks in the battle of lazily abbreviated teams, Ramos tried to corral an errant relay throw from Ryan Zimmerman. He came down hard, which is where the trouble started:

With six games remaining in the 2016 season, Ramos had a torn ACL, knocking him out for the playoffs and clouding his future. Evidently, Washington didn’t want to take a chance on his recovery, instead dealing for San Diego’s Derek Norris to play behind the plate. Should the Rays have taken on this risk?

Well, they certainly don’t have a whole lot to lose. As noted above, their catcher performance killed them in 2016; the position’s soul-sucking awfulness was a large reason why they had the second-worst record in the American League. While ACL tears are never a sure thing, the Cubs’ Kyle Schwarber has shown us how someone can rebound from one and immediately succeed.

And Ramos might return to full strength sooner than expected. Although he underwent surgery to mend his ACL in October, he told the Tampa Bay Times’ Mark Topkin that he expects to come back by early May as a designated hitter. He obviously wouldn’t provide any defensive assistance in that role, but his vision at the plate would bolster Tampa Bay’s offense.

Most importantly, the Rays aren’t taking too great of a risk on Ramos. At less than $7 million per year over 2017 and 2018, he’ll consume a relatively small portion of their payroll, and even if he sticks at DH and plays at an average level, a one- to two-win player would give Tampa Bay a decent value. His 2016 breakout gives him immense upside, and the downside doesn’t come close to negating that.

Ramos has four-odd months to convalesce before the season starts, and the Rays can evaluate their backup backstops to see who will fill in for him when the season starts. For a team to contend, it needs a solid catching staff — Tampa Bay’s failure in this regard played a large role in its 2016 collapse. Ramos makes it a lot less likely they’ll have the same problems over the next two seasons.

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Ryan Romano is the co-managing editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles for Camden Depot, and about politics for The Diamondback. Follow him on Twitter if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.